Even the most casual reader of the Gospels will be struck by the many stories of miracles they tell.
On page after page, the Gospel writers describe Jesus cleansing the leper, opening the ears of the deaf, giving sight to the blind and even raising the dead. There are stories of Jesus turning water into wine, multiplying loaves of bread and fish to feed the hungry multitudes and calming the raging storm.
Should Christians today take these stories of miracles seriously? Can Christians who inhabit a world that is so vastly different from the writers of the Gospels – informed and shaped as they are by the scientific worldview – still believe in miracles?
Many have replied these questions with an emphatic ‘No’.
The 19th century Scottish philosopher and essayist, David Hume, is an example of a modern skeptic whose vision of reality is shaped by the natural sciences. Defining miracle as ‘a violation of the laws of nature’ or ‘a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the Deity’, Hume argues that it is unreasonable to believe that miracles are possible because they fly in the face our standard notions of how the world works.
Thus, in his celebrated An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding Hume writes: ‘as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws [of nature], the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined’.
The positivists in that century, influenced by the reductionisms of modern science, argued that belief in miracles belonged to a stage of human development in which the dominant vision of reality was shot through with the supernatural. Describing this phase as ‘theological’ these positivist philosophers went on to assert that humankind has now entered a new phase in which knowledge of the world is established on empirical facts obtained by the scientific method, not superstition.
Consequently, Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872) famously postulated that belief in God and the supernatural are simply objectified (and personified) projections of basic human desires. And Levi Strauss (1808-1874) suggested that the Incarnation and miracles are just mythological images conjured by primitive people.
In his attempt to reconcile Christianity with science F. D. E. Schleiermacher, who is christened as the ‘father of modern theology’, maintains that the only miracle is the act of God in sustaining the world he has created. All other lesser ‘miracles’, according to Schleiermacher, are just extraordinary events that science will eventually be able to explain.
Bewitched by the explanatory power of the natural sciences, many modern thinkers accuse Christians who believe in miracles of fabricating a ‘god of the gaps’. Christians attribute to divine agency the extraordinary phenomena or occurrences for which science has yet to provide satisfactory explanations. But the ‘god of the gaps’ will shrink – and perhaps one day he may even disappear – as science narrows the gap, so to speak, by providing ever more comprehensive accounts of natural phenomenon.
It is crucial to note, however, that the rejection of miracles is based on a certain view of science and a certain power that we have given to it, a power that it does not in fact possess. We have placed our hope in science’s omnicompetence – its ability to penetrate the depths of reality, and its ability to explain everything.
This hope is misplaced. In his book entitled, The Limits of Science Sir Peter Medawar, the Nobel Prize winner (and atheist) offers a sober (and sobering) estimate of science, its possibilities and its limits. ‘That there is indeed a limit upon science’, writes Medawar, ‘is made very likely by the existence of questions that science cannot answer and that no conceivable advance of science would empower it to answer’.
Theologian and scientist John Polkinghorne has perceptively pointed out that ‘no one lives as if science is enough’. This means that everyone knows that reality has a depth and breath that science is simply unable to reach. It has a profundity that science simply cannot fathom. Positivists, secularists, and atheists (including the new atheists) would all agree to this, if only they chose to be honest to themselves.
The New Testament describes miracles as ‘a wonder’ (Gk: teras), an ‘act of power’ (Gk: dunamis) and a ‘sign’ (Gk: semeion). Theologian James Oliver Buswell offers this concise but comprehensive definition of a miracle in the biblical sense. A miracle is (1) an extraordinary event that cannot be explained on the basis of natural laws, (2) an event that causes the observers to conclude that God is at work, and (3) an event that points to a reality much greater than itself.
Even Christians who believe in miracles sometimes miss their true significative purpose. In the Bible, miracles, signs and wonders are never ends in themselves, but point to a greater reality.
In sending the twelve apostles to preach the good news, Jesus instructed them thus: ‘And proclaim as you go, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand”. Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons’ (Matthew 10:7-8).
Miracles are a sign that the kingdom of God has come into our world through the incarnate Son. They are a pledge and foretaste of the blessings to come when God’s inaugurated kingdom will be fully consummated when the risen and ascended Christ returns.